In four separate ceremonies held around the state Dec. 16, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R.) signed into law legislation that partially funds SunRail, a $1.2-billion, 61-mile commuter rail project in Central Florida, and at the same time shores up the state's chances for federal high-speed rail dollars. Unfortunately, while Gov. Crist darted around the Sunshine State, clouds hung over the state capital and Secretary of Transportation Stephanie Kopelousos in particular for her alleged role in what's been called "Wafflegate." (More on that shortly.)
Though Florida's rail efforts have suffered numerous fits and starts over the many years, the new rail legislation was passed swiftly by a recent special session of the Republican-dominated Florida legislature. There were several reasons for the swift action, all of which boiled down to one thing: getting money from the federal government.
Officials with the U.S. Dept. of Transportation have made it clear to state officials that money from the federal government's high-speed rail program wouldn't be coming to Florida if the state wasn't going to adequately commit to current rail programs. Those commitments included the previously stalled SunRail project, which had not garnered sufficient support in previous legislative sessions. It also meant committing new funding to TriRail, the existing rail system in South Florida, which was facing operational funding deficiencies and needed additional state dollars to avoid service cutbacks.
With Florida's nearly $3 billion in high-speed rail grant requests pending before the U.S. Dept. of Transportation, the lawmakers of this fiscally strapped state weren't willing to take a chance on losing those federal funds -- which realistically represent Florida's last best chance for expanded rail systems for the foreseeable future.
In a press release touting his signing of the rail legislation, Gov. Crist stated: “Future generations of Floridians will look on this day as a bold step toward modernizing how residents and visitors will travel in our state.”
As the St. Petersburg Times reported, the law enables the state to spend roughly $432 million to buy 61 miles of existing track from CSX. Additional monies would come from the federal government; Orange, Volusia, Seminole and Osceola counties; as well as the city of Orlando and passenger fares.
Missing from the governor's side at the ceremonial signings was FDOT Secretary Kopelousos, who became entangled Tuesday in a controversy of sorts over undisclosed e-mails. The assertion is that Secretary Kopelousos and Assistant Secretary Kevin Thibault tagged emails between FDOT officials and CSX discussing the rail-line purchase with subjects like "French toast" and "pancakes" in an attempt to circumvent open-records laws.
The South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported: "Unfortunately, one of the bill's biggest critics had tried to obtain the e-mails from the DOT before the Legislature began debating the issue. DOT officials initially told state Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, that the agency hadn't exchanged e-mails with CSX under the titles 'rail,' 'SunRail' and 'CSX. They later changed their story and turned over the e-mails to Dockery after the special session."
Actually, FDOT spokesperson Dick Kane told Southeast Construction that there was a total of only three "pancake" e-mails -- out of several thousand between FDOT and CSX -- and none were especially sensitive or clandestine in nature. (FDOT provided copies of the e-mails to media, including Southeast Construction.) Kane reiterated that there was no intent to circumvent the state's public-records law, adding that the search engine that FDOT used to respond to the request for information scans all parts of an e-mail, including the body of the text, and not just the subject line. Therefore, since the e-mails in question were not written in code, it was clear there was no intent on the part of FDOT officials to violate state law.
Howard Troxler, with the St. Petersburg Times, wrote in his Dec. 17 column that he buys FDOT's explanation, and added: "This pancake flap (flapjack flap?) has led to a series of postures that may be summed up thusly: Harrumph!"
He's right. Unfortunately for FDOT and Secretary Kopelousos, it's political season in Florida. Gov. Crist, who is in a tight Republican race for the U.S. Senate, has called for an investigation, the Miami Herald reported. Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, who is a Democratic candidate for governor, said Kopelousos should leave if it is proven that she conspired to break state law.
Of course, there's much more to this rail deal. So stay tuned. This train's just getting out of the station.